The Purpose of Government

With the political season in full swing, and my own state’s primary coming up in three weeks, I wanted to take the opportunity to write about how I approach political issues and the philosophy of government in general. Consider it an exercise in thinking in public. I welcome you to join me and to share your own thoughts as I go. 

The Purpose of Government

Let’s begin by taking a giant step back from the world of debates and sound bytes to look at the big picture. What is the telos of government? What’s it for? When we consider this question — specifically with regard to the United States government — there are some “high ideals” that I think nearly all Americans share, whether they identify as conservative, liberal, libertarian, or anything else.

I hope that we can all agree that in an ideal situation, each of our citizens would be healthy, prosperous, well-educated, and able to live at peace, safe from threats both foreign and domestic. Our nation would be internally united, well-regarded in the world, able to defend itself, but at peace with all other nations. Our leaders would be honorable statesmen who would rule justly, and predictably. And we would want to know that our children and grandchildren would be able to enjoy these same blessings.

Indeed, these are the very ideals that are explicitly stated in our Constitution. That document’s Preamble lays out its aims: “to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

Before launching into a series of posts in which I’ll be sharing my own thoughts on how best to secure these blessings, as well as weighing in on a few of this election’s “hot button” issues, I believe it’s important to state two things that may be less obvious than they seem.

The first is that people disagree about the form that government should take to reach these goals. We’ve all seen political debates, of course, and we realize that some of these disagreements are vehement, but I think we too easily lose sight of the fact that these are actually very difficult issues to work through. It’s natural that some disagreement will arise (and great men have argued these same questions for millennia), but if our ideals are good ones, they are worth debating. When we oversimplify the issues, and think that our own solutions are “obviously” the correct ones, it causes us to villainize our political opponents. “Barack Obama hates freedom!” “Mitt Romney hates poor people!” “Newt Gingrich hates commitment!” (Okay, that last one might be true.) It would do wonders for the state of political discourse in this country if we could all charitably assume that, on some level (however high up), we really do all want the same thing.

The second is that the ideals listed above can only be attained by a truly moral society, which presents a problem. We are not a moral people. We can’t even agree on what morality is! So, the very best we can hope for is a compromise. We have to be willing to accept the fact that politics and politicians cannot deliver the ideal society that we all desire. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to be as close to perfect as possible. It just means we have to think of it in the same way that we think about our sanctification: we work to conform our lives (or in this case, our nation) to the Ideal, understanding that perfection won’t be achieved until our Lord returns.

Some day there will be a perfect government. Every citizen of that great nation will be healthy and happy. No one will want for anything. There will be no poverty, no fear, and no war. The government will be upon the shoulders of a conquering King who is also the Prince of Peace, and in Him we will find the blessings of Liberty secured for ourselves and for our children.

In fact, Americans (and people around the world) have these political ideals precisely because they reflect the eternal Kingdom that God has promised. We were created for that place, and our hearts’ deepest longings are to be there.

Christians need to be engaged in the political process, but engaging in the work of Christ’s heavenly Kingdom must be our first priority. The true solution to any of our political goals is for more and more people to become like Jesus. National sanctification will not precede individual sanctification, and neither can happen when the people who have the Light hide it, looking for illumination elsewhere. No matter which candidate you support, remember where our help comes from.

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish. Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry.” ~ Psalm 146:3-7

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” ~ John Adams


So far I have six more posts planned in this series, covering the size of government, economics, abortion, foreign policy, gay marriage, and education (not necessarily in that order). Is there anything else you would like to see me address relating to politics?

5 comments on “The Purpose of Government

  1. […] I wrote a few days ago, I believe that there are certain “high ideals” which nearly all […]

  2. […] the last week I’ve written about what I see as the purpose of Government, and why I favor a small government. Today, I’ll state the case for why I am a Capitalist, […]

  3. […] convictions consistent with our faith. In the last few weeks, I have attempted this exercise in thinking in public about the purpose and particulars of government. I realize, of course, that other Christians will develop different convictions, and am thankful […]

  4. […] bears repeating: ”Our ultimate hope is in Jesus, not in some candidate.” I absolutely believe that Christians should be involved in the political process. We need to know where we stand on the issues and why, and we have a responsibility to know the […]

  5. […] yet read in favor of voting for Romney despite my many objections to his positions on the role and size of government, the economy, foreign policy, etc. Phillips is brash and condescending, […]

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